Faith and rap music have never been more compatible. Between the successes of Chance the Rapper, Lecrae and KB—all professing Christians who sing about their faith—there’s little doubt Jesus-loving rap is on the way up.
And then there’s Kendrick Lamar, the multi-Grammy award winning rapper hailing from Compton, California. You may recognise him from his stellar work on the Black Panther movie soundtrack, or as the guest artist on Taylor Swift’s ‘Bad Blood’.
But true rap fans will know Kendrick for his art, and his ability to weave his culture and teachings from the Bible into his lyrics. And often it’s crass.
Kendrick’s faith in God is complicated. He is known as one of rap’s most outspoken Christians, yet he asks the tough questions, and expresses his findings with a slip of the tongue that leaves an ‘explicit’ rating on each of his songs.
Without a doubt, Kendrick’s work is a reflection of the street-gang culture he grew up around. And while it’s not tidy, it is also true to the way he came to know God—he was introduced to Christ by his grandma in a parking lot, soon after one of his friends was murdered.
Today, he has become a role model for the community he grew up in, and offers an invitation for young people to meet the same God who saved his life.
“I’m the closest thing to a preacher [my fans] have,” he told The New York Times. “My word will never be as strong as God’s word. All I am is just a vessel, doing his work.”
Inspired by Tupac, Lamar pursued music as a teenager under the moniker K-Dot. Proving that authenticity really is the key to success, fame arrived when he reverted to his birth name, and after the breakout success of his first major label release, good kid, m.A.A.d city, his path to becoming a cultural icon seemed set.
Unafraid to confront the tension between the brazen nature of the rap world and religion, he announced his baptism during a Kanye West tour, and dived into his faith with his follow up album To Pimp a Butterfly. He even quoted a prayer at the start of his album that encouraged people to become Christians.
Kendrick became an alternative to the norm—a rapper who rarely drank, didn’t smoke, and who remained in a loving relationship with his high school girlfriend.
The now 30-year-old remained wholly committed to fulfilling his calling with the release of his album DAMN. With it, the real difference between Kendrick and his faith-filled peers came to light, because it was an intentional effort to grapple with the holiness of God, not just his loving kindness.
Short for ‘damnation’, the album tells the story of the rapper’s struggle to understand God, and in it he asks questions most of us shy away from.
“Why God, why God do I gotta suffer? Pain in my heart carry burdens full of struggle. Why God, why God do I gotta bleed? Every stone thrown at you restin’ at my feet,” he sings.
He also graphically relays his struggle to remain pure and devoted to God in an industry that glorifies sex, booze, fame and drugs.
“I feel it’s my calling to share the joy of God, but with exclamation, more so, the fear of God. The balance. Knowing the power in what he can build, and also what he can destroy,” he told DJ Booth.
“I wanna spread this truth to my listeners.”
Every person’s faith journey is unique, and when it comes to Kendrick Lamar, it is raw, unfiltered and divisive. Yet by expressing this musically, he gives us permission to wrestle with our own doubts and failings.
By doing so, we not only draw closer to God, but we inspire other people to do the same.